After conducting a penis count of major NYC art institutions in the '80s, activist group Guerilla Girls asked, Do ladies have to be naked to get into the Met? Only five percent of the exhibited artists were women while 85 percent of the nudes were female. While we haven't done an exact tally, we're confident that Miami's weenie count is pretty balanced in comparison.
Think of local art superstars Christy Gast, Agustina Woodgate, Jillian Mayer, Susan Lee-Chun and Jen Stark. Add to that major curators like Bonnie Clearwater and Ruba Katrib at MOCA, and gallerists like Bernice Steinbum, and our feminist art report card looks pretty good. But it wasn't always this way. A documentary, !War Art Revolution, which catalogs the feminist art movement, is screening at three of Miami's indie theaters this weekend.
Filmmaker and artist Lynn Hershman Leeson has been filming frustrated women
artists for over 40 years. Her latest, !W.AR., documents how their work was
discredited by art programs, galleries, and museums for decades. Leeson herself sold one of her pieces in the
mid-70s, only to have the collector return it when he found out she was a
With an original score by Carrie Bowenstein (of Sleater Kinney and Wild
Flag), the film is a collection of interviews with dozens (frankly, too
many) feminist artists, female curators,
and tenured art professors. It traces back to
early activism like a protest at the Whitey where feminist artists
projected their artwork on the outside of the building and placed eggs
inside the walls where their work was ignored.
Censored from the white, male art world, women sought out rooms of their own
by starting their own magazines, galleries, and academic programs. Judy Chicago, while
developing the first female art program at Fresno Sate,
noticed women were
immediately drawn to "act out" via performance art. Another interviewed artist backs this up with "There's a long tradition of women being looked upon. Performance art was a way of looking back." (Interestingly, most of Miami's major female artists work in performance.)
In a scene from 1990, House representatives
spend an hour and half raging against vagina art as
porn via a bill censoring Chicago's The Dinner Party as a pornographic
collection of ceramic "vaginal areas." A highlight of the film, Rep. Ron Dellums, who once
curated an exhibit of Vietnam war crimes outside his
Congressional office, retorts with "Pornography are military weapons that
look like phallic symbols capable of doing nothing but destroying human
While the film is invaluable for featuring artists and work that were
unjustly marginalized for decades, it suffers from far too many talking
heads. Just as the personal is the political, !W.A.R. would have been
better served by centering on a few women's specific experiences.
Even in its current treatment, the patron saint of the film is
undoubtedly Ana Medieta, a Cuban exile performance artist (and the
subject of Miami choreographer Ana Mendez recent The Body Is Present
Mendieta was allegedly shoved out a window by her sculpture husband. His
art world peers -- Robert Rauschenberg, etc. -- rallied him and raised funds for his defense. Mendieta's husband was ultimately acquitted
of her murder and went on to exhibit in the Guggenheim.
To some extent, the film wraps around the narrative of the filmmaker. Leeson closes the film by stating that one of her pieces, so
undervalued back in to '70s, was recently bought for 9,000 times its
original price -- ultimately funding this film.
!W.A.R. is a must-see in that it reveals the decades of struggle on which
today's women artists enjoy their success. As artist Harmony Hammond
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comments in the film, their fight was "excitement, it was empowering,
and it was a lot of fucking work."
!W.A.R. is screening this weekend at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema, and Cosford Cinema.